A century of Nabokov


A handful of masters, ably abetted by several major influences, have ensured the survival this century of that most beleaguered of literary forms, the novel. One of the most original practitioners, Vladimir Nabokov, born in St Petersburg 100 years ago tomorrow, has proved crucial to its continued existence despite repeated claims of its demise.

Not only does the poised, inventive, stylish and often hilarious Nabokov provide the bridge between the modern European novel and its US counterpart, he moves elegantly between various worlds; that of the aristocratic old Russia he was born into, the European emigre culture he became part of and the new America, whose innocence and naivety he remained alert to.

Although as the child of privileged parents Nabokov was taught English and French, he did not come to write in English until he was 40. But by then he was already well established as a leading Russian emigre writer and author of poetry, plays, and novels including Laughter in the Dark (1933) and various translations including Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (into Russian) and Eugene Onegin (into English). On moving to the US in 1940, he began an academic career which culminated in 11 years at Cornell University, where he was Professor of Russian Literature.

At 42, he had a poem published in the New Yorker, while The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, his first novel written in English, also appeared in 1941. Since then Nabokov has remained a dominant force in international literature through his second language. His fiction is daring, stylistically adroit and linguistically rich, while his criticism is astute, some of it classic. Nabokov made and continues to make writers, and readers, aware of the complexities and resources of language.

While admired and revered, he is also criticised for being cold, too clever, overly cerebral, addicted to trickery and incapable of either exploring or evoking emotion. But if it is impossible to refute those charges of cleverness, it is wrong to suggest Nabokov's fiction is devoid of emotion, albeit emotion presented at its most chaotically ambiguous. Mary, his first novel, which he completed in Russian in 1926, is a traditional account of lost love remembered with equal measures of nostalgia and regret by an exasperated central figure.

And most obviously, there's Lolita (1955) his most famous novel, a celebration of art, immense style and cold wisdom. Admittedly, any discussion of love in relation to Humbert Humbert's depraved obsession with Dolores Haze is bound to become caught up in issues of morality, but art does transcend moral judgement. It could be argued that Nabokov, in common with his most obvious literary heir, John Updike, has always suffered the weight of censure because of the content of his work.

It is too easy to dismiss the hilarious, shocking Lolita as an erotic romp - which it is not. While far from a conventional love story - though Humbert does proclaim his love, "I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you" - it is an ambiguous, multi-layered, repulsively beautiful and beautiful repulsive lament for the loss of innocence. Near the end of the novel Humbert realises that were tough-talking little Lolita capable of lucid thought, she would probably be able to figure out, as he does, that whereas the playwright Clare Quilty broke her heart, he Humbert, merely broke her life.

In terms of romance the heart is the far greater prize. Humbert's realisation is the final of many cruelties Nabokov imposes upon his pathetic, deceitful, narcissistic narrator, whose various cruelties never quite match the assortment of insults he experiences.

Lolita belongs to Nabokov's US trio, which includes the comic masterpiece Pnin (1957) and Pale Fire (1962). Between them, the entire dazzling Nabokovian repertoire is on show. Half-poem, half-prose, Pale Fire alone testifies to the resilience of the novel form. Its trickery places it in the realm of intellectual game crossed with detective story. The beauty of the language releases a series of fabulous images; "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/By the false azure in the windowpane" - yet the work plays to the intellect, not the emotions. That said, it is a wonderful performance and the narrative itself is its central player.

While the likeable, human Pnin is Nabokov's most engaging character, Humbert, the unconvincing penitent recalling his fixation with a non committal, gum-snapping 12-year-old girl and the crazed odyssey they embark on, is the most compelling. It is as if his creator deliberately denies Humbert all sympathy by consistently allowing him to damn himself by his own confession.

Lolita may be difficult for the reader to love, but for all her conniving petulance, she is still a child, a fact which occasionally strikes Humbert, who for all his preoccupation with beauty is really only concerned with surfaces. Reality does intrude on his preoccupations: Conscious of sitting "with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed" Humbert can report instances, when weary of his sexual demands, she would mutter "not again" and he also heard "her sobs in the night - every night, every night." One of the saddest and most pertinent moments in this sad, funny novel is when Humbert's recalls of their journey, "We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing." Lolita the fantasy-girl denied even the truth about her mother's death, is treated like a performing animal.

By comparison the world Prin inhabits seems extraordinarily dense. Or does it? "Like so many ageing college people, Prin had long ceased to notice the existence of students on the campus, in the corridors, in the library - anywhere. . . In the beginning, he had been much upset by the sight of some of them, their poor young heads on their forearms, fast asleep among the ruins of knowledge." By that novel's close, Pnin may lose his job, but he still has his dignity.

After 15 years in the US, this most European of writers, who not only re-invented himself but played a role in the re-invention of the American novel, returned to Europe and settled in Switzerland. There he wrote a near-masterpiece, Despair (1965), as black as Lolita and featuring Hermann Hermann, a protagonist as pleased with himself as Humbert often is - though troubled by circumstances beyond himself, in a narrative which has echoes of the work of an earlier Russian master.

In his thoughtful, disciplined memoir, Speak, Memory (1967), Nabokov explains the world and sensibility which created him - a one time playboy, tennis player, chess expert, authority on butterflies and artist - and his fiction. This has now been republished with a recently discovered final chapter, in which Nabokov reviews his own book. In celebrating the work of Vladimir Nabokov, we acknowledge that art and humour as well as humanity, surfaces as well as profundities, perversions and perfections, theory as much as story, all have a share in the modern novel.

Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited is published by ]Everyman at £10.99 in UK.